Skin A Cat, Vault Festival

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Without question, my best new writing discovery of 2015 was young writer Isley Lynn’s play Tether at Edinburgh Fringe. This surprising, diverse two-hander also made it into the top five of my Top 10 Shows of 2015 so I was excited to receive an invitation to her autobiographical play Skin A Cat at Vault Festival. Having been so blown away by Tether, I worried I would find her other work underwhelming, but Skin A Cat is driven by the same sort of quick-witted, emotionally honest characters on a path of discovery that Tether boasts. Skin A Cat’s not about sport, though. It’s a tale of a stubborn vagina and an epic journey of self-acceptance in a world obsessed with sex. Phenomenal performances and humour tell Alana’s struggle with vaginismus and vaginal penetration with refreshingly frank, honest writing.

Theatre (and Western culture) doesn’t shy away from heteronormative sex, but a main character that hates it due to a psychosexual disorder is most rare indeed. Beginning with her first period on holiday at age nine, we see Alana (Lydia Larson) navigate teenage sexual exploits, several boyfriends, university and her twenties as a heterosexual young woman who finds vaginal penetration excruciating to the point of impossible. Try as she might, it doesn’t happen and the older she gets, the more burdensome and upsetting her virginity becomes. Alana tells her story directly to the audience with support by the excellent Jessica Clark and Jassa Ahluwalia, who play everyone else she encounters along the way, sometimes on mics and sometimes in conventional dialogue scenes, seamlessly switching between the two styles. Larson’s fantastic, perky Alana is genuine, funny and grows up before the audience’s eyes; that and Lynn’s unfettered dialogue cause us to feel like we know her inside and out (#sorrynotsorry) at the end of the 90 minutes.

Lynn’s gift for dialogue and detailed characters within a cleverly framed style shines here, and is generally well supported by director Blythe Stewart. Despite the serious subject matter and the control vaginismus has over Alana’s life, Lynn and Stewart use humour delightfully and liberally in both the writing and staging. Sex, attempted sex and orgasms hilariously abound, along with poignancy, tenderness and dogged desperation. It’s a beautiful balance.

Holly Pigott’s set solely consists of a bed; the pressure of its associated activities dominates Alana’s life. Some of the costume choices puzzle, though. The dungarees that Clark and Ahluwalia wear are androgynous and childlike, and rather old fashioned. Larson wears layers of undergarments that creates a simultaneously sexy and exposing, and completely unsexy and concealing effect – a great manifestation of Alana’s inner conflict.

Skin A Cat evokes belly laughs and empathy, nostalgia and wonder. Though it raises awareness of a psychosexual condition, Lynn manages to not make this an “awareness” play. Instead, it’s a story about growing up, loving yourself and making friends with your body’s quirks. Excellent writing and committed performances in Skin A Cat prove Isley Lynn and the cast are ones to watch.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.

Kite, Soho Theatre

Grief doesn’t need words to communicate. Music and movement are much better mediums for the relentless, gut ripping echo that is losing someone you love. The Wrong Crowd’s latest work Kite depicts the simple, family friendly tale of Girl’s move to her grandmother’s home in the city after her mother’s death. Puppetry, movement and music completely replace words in this visual theatre piece that quietly charms in its simplicity.

We first meet Girl (Charlotte Croft) poring through boxes labelled, “mum’s stuff” and reliving her memories through perfume, clothes and a photograph. In this sadly beautiful sequence, she rebuilds her mother out of these items, but her grandmother (Liz Crowther) eventually interrupts. Girl is often alone but for the constant wind the audience hears, personified by two strangers in grey trench coats, Linden Walcott-Burton and Nicola Blackwell. They are an ominous presence initially but once their purpose is made clear, they lose their threatening presence. These two also functionally serve as stagehands, moving and shifting the set and props in tightly choreographed neutrality that’s entrancing to watch. They never judge, just eternally observe and manipulate the world around them. 

Suddenly, a small, yellow kite interrupts Girl’s melancholy and refusal to eat at her grandmother’s house, and everything changes. The colour is a bright splash across the dark set and its constant movement takes on its own personality, like the wind that propels it. The quiet, calm atmosphere gains a refreshing energy as Girl bonds with the kite mid-air. Puppetry is introduced and adds additional charm, but could be incorporated more and earlier in the piece.

Though movement and sound are the primary features conveying mood and tone here, the choreography by Eddie Kay is simple. Polished, but simple – and it works. Dealing with grief is a repetitive process, making everyday routine even more meaningless. Girl has little expression until she finds the kite, drawing even more attention to the movement. The audience can see Grandmother’s exasperation in unembellished, repeated gestures. Crowther counters her with a warm, expressive face that betrays her love for girl; rare moments where she can focus on her own grief are some of the saddest in the show.

The design, like the choreography, is simple and effective. Director Rachel Canning takes charge of this element, integrating it well with the action. Domestic items seem mundane but are transformed into a skyline when Girl flies high above the city. A similar transformation happens to Grandmother’s umbrella with the addition of some rope lighting. 

The piece as a whole doesn’t have a huge “wow” factor, but that’s ok. It has a gentle warmth, plenty of pathos and feels like a soothing bath after a long day. Its quietness suits the very young and those prone to sensory overload, but the story of a young girl’s journey through grief resonates with all ages.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.

You Tweet My Face Space, Theatre N16

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David and Charlotte’s ten-year relationship is on the rocks. He’s struggling with an addiction that’s pushing her out of his busy life, but David’s social media and internet habits aren’t allowing him to give Charlotte the attention she deserves. When an indiscretion on a night out is immediately published and Charlotte leaves him, David vows to quit cold turkey. It’s not so easy though. As the personified apps crash his peace and quiet, this romcom takes a surreal, satirical turn. With bitingly funny moments, good comic timing and some good performances, this surprising one-act is a great giggle for those of us enslaved by technology.

Tom Hartwell is the bookish, quiet David who’s frustration becomes real and relatable. He’s wonderfully foiled by characters such as Hotmail (suave, aloof Hadley Smith), self-obsessed Instagram (girl next door Ellie Goffe with a heart of gold) and Facebook (subtly vicious Evan Rees). Tinder (Kate Okello), Farmville (the wonderfully dour Katie Dalzell) and a couple of others join in to try to persuade David to stay in the internet realm, and some glorious clashes ensue with plenty of digital pop culture in-jokes. Pacing is excellent, as is the energy and ensemble work of the cast.

Hartwell is also the playwright; he has good intuition for the relationship story arc that frames and justifies the chaos, though the moral is a rather obvious one and not particularly profound. His dialogue is punchy and fun, regularly inducing laughs. (It would be interesting to see what his serious material is like.) Director Anne Stoffels has her hands full with a large cast in a small space, but usually manages to keep the action moving without messiness.

For a social media comedy, You Tweet My Face Space is well crafted and even though some of the performances are weaker than others, it reminds us to take a break from our online worlds and interact with people face-to-face more often. It’s a fun, frivolous piece with some excellent moments and a bit of post-holiday season fun.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.

in/out (a feeling), Hope Theatre

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Sometimes, simplicity in narrative structure is more effective than twists, heaps of characters and subplots. Storytelling has been a powerful medium for time immemorial. in/out (a feeling) starkly depicts young, Eastern European woman Blue working in a London brothel after promised a cleaning job. Her client Ollie is a coked-up, suburban lad out for his mate’s stag do, but their encounter changes both their lives, at least for a little while. This two-hander is a brutal depiction of sex trafficking and its uncomfortable nearness to us all, but unblinkingly focuses on the delicate humanity of these two characters through interweaving, storytelling monologues. Excellent performances and Andrew Maddock’s sophisticated wordplay and use of rhythm both captivates and horrifies in this outstanding production with few, if any, faults.

Nicholas Clarke and Alex Reynolds are Ollie and Blue. Though rarely addressing each other directly, their chemistry is still tangible. Clarke’s character has a more interesting journey, from lad’s lad to articulate romantic to devoted boyfriend; Reynolds’ is subtler but more devastating. Both have fearless, vulnerable presences and expressive eyes that pierce the audience to the core during extended sequences of direct address. This is a small, intimate play in a similarly sized venue, but these performers fill the room with intensity and then some. The audience feels like they really know them by the end: a remarkable feat.

Director Niall Phillips and lighting designer Çağla Temizsoy put the stage/bed in the round with harsh blue and red lighting. The set design, presumably by Phillips, is similarly harsh and animalistic: white paint slashes the black walls, strips of red fabric hang from the ceiling like intestines. It’s a nightmare to us, but it’s Blue’s reality. Small buckets, like the kind children play with at the beach, dangle at head height. They aren’t filled with sand, though. It’s Ollie’s perpetual supply of cocaine that he lovingly shares with Blue and frantically sniffs during descriptions of his all-night binges. By the end of this 70-minute play, there’s white powder everywhere.

Along with the performances, Maddock’s language is the star of the play. Evocative rhyme hints at spoken word at times, at others his prose dances with colours, imagery and Blue’s memories of a happier life. We meet several other characters through their storytelling: Blue’s pimp, Ollie’s friend Connell, and others. The double meaning and repetition of “in, out” innocuously describes breathing, then the other bodily function that dictates the rhythms of Blue’s existence. Maddock’s ability to wow the audience with his facility of word choice, sentence structure, rhyme and repetition easily tips into the terror that these characters experiences; this is proof of an extraordinary gift with words and evocative storytelling.

Though building awareness of the closeness of human trafficking is clearly the primary purpose of this piece (Do you actually know your neighbours’ isn’t a brothel? I don’t.), in/out (a feeling) could be about anything at all and the language would still have it’s power. This is a production that needs to be seen, but it feels it would lose its intensity in a larger venue. A good portion of the actors’ power hinges on eye contact, which is easily lost in a bigger space. But in/out (a feeling) needs to be seen by more people – by everyone. And it’s a stunning piece of theatre as well as a vital one.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.

Shakespeare as You (Might) Like It, Rosemary Branch Theatre

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Four hundred years ago this April, Shakespeare died. A bunch of academics decided to take advantage of this bizarre anniversary and launched Shakespeare 400. It’s a great excuse for a nationwide Shakespeare celebration, but few of the involved events appear to acknowledge that the celebration is of his death and that he most definitely would write no more. Shook Up Shakespeare hasn’t let this fact bypass them, though. Their 45-minute Shakespearian cabaret mash up, Shakespeare As You (Might) Like It, is a quad centenary wake celebrating some of the Bard’s best female roles and the chaotic spirit of Elizabethan and Jacobean performance conventions.

Performer/creators Roseanna Morris and Helen Watkinson energetically and easily flip from Shakespeare’s verse to contemporary audience banter. Their show doesn’t have a plot, but involves party games, cakes, wine, singing and audience interaction as well as some cracking excerpts. In the intimate Rosemary Branch Theatre, it’s hard to hide but after the initial refreshments, party bags and taking a register, it feels more like a group of friends out for a laugh so people willingly volunteer. There’s a hint of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) but with less structure, though it doesn’t feel like it needs it at such a short length.

Morris and Watkinson, as well as being friendly, charismatic and unintimidating, are excellent performers. They perform three scenes and at a push, the Desdemona/Emilia scene is the best but the other two are still fantastically endowed with a seemingly-easy commitment. Though not the best of singers, they confidently carry the Willow song. They switch their tone on a pin, which is truly lovely to watch.

Shakespeare As You (Might) Like It is their debut show as a company and as fun as it is, it could use some developing. With more material it will probably need more shaping and a more clearly outlined purpose/message, but Morris and Watkinson are natural talents with clear passion for sharing Shakespeare’s work with joy rather than quiet reverence.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.

Macbeth, Young Vic Theatre

Though drastic re-imaginings of Shakespeare’s plays can show the contemporary relevance of his workgroups the use of a clear, justifiable concept, randomly slapping on cool ideas has the opposite effect. Alienating and confusing, the audience can go away with no more understanding of the story than they came in with, and the director’s decisions look masturbatory and self-indulgent. If a new perspective or insight isn’t provided on a play that the audience is likely to already know or have seen, then there is absolutely no point to adding a concept at all. Such is the case with Carrie Cracknell and Lucy Guerin’s Macbeth. With a text cut to ribbons, lengthy contemporary dance sequences inserted, generically quirky witches and inexplicable doubling, this production is a fine example of how contemporary Shakespeare concepts for the sake of edginess fails to communicate anything to the audience.

An optical illusion of a set by Lizzie Clachan and Neil Austin’s lighting ensures every moment could make a stunning photograph with stark shadows and forced perspective. This isn’t an art exhibition, though. The cold, industrial feel supports the mood of the play but lacks the sumptuousness that the Macbeths kill for. The rarely changing set doesn’t delineate space or place well, merging this world with the next. In some scenes this works, but it’s hard to follow where the characters are, particularly with the liberal cuts to the text. A home or a Heath? Scotland or England? Bedroom or banquet? It’s easy to lose track, even knowing the play well.

The witches, wearing beige dance wear, twitch and spasm around the space, sometimes with other characters joining in to create a repetitive, robotic movement machine. Why? I genuinely don’t know. There’s a hint of a lack of self-control but the repetition counters that effect. They also double for the child characters, which causes them to lose their power and inhuman-ness. Their movement sequences are entirely too long and lack any support for the narrative, though they are distinct from the other characters.

Fortunately, some of the performances are quite good. John Heffernan as Macbeth is a flawed man we see unravel, though this process is forced due to the cuts in the first half of the play. Anna Maxwell Martin on the other hand is rushed and deadpan, completely disregarding the verse and therefore flattening it. Prasanna Puwanarajah is a good Banquo, though the choice to have his ghost narrate the “out, damn spot” monologue was completely ineffective and nonsensical. Despite a disempowerment of the smaller roles due to the textual edits, the rest of the cast perform with energy and commitment.

There is a litany of further poor choices that show a value of style over substance in this production, and despite the directors’ need for weirdness, the whole thing comes across as generic and pointless. The stylised, lengthy movement sequences make no comment on the world of the play or its inhabitants, and with so much of the text removed, this Macbeth is very much “a tale…full of sound a fury, signifying nothing”.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.

Big Brother Blitzkrieg, King’s Head Theatre

Lots of things seem like a great idea at uni. Some of them are genuinely good ideas. A great deal more aren’t. Writing a play about Hitler in the Big Brother House is one of the latter. In 2014, Newcastle University students Hew Rous Eyre and Max Elton founded Bitter Pill Theatre to produce their debut play, Big Brother Blitzkrieg, at Edinburgh Fringe that year. With a couple of other shows now under their belt, they bring their popular first production to London. Meant to somehow satirise Big Brother and Hitler, this stereotype-driven piece doesn’t follow any sort of consistent narrative logic and doesn’t manage to rise to satirical humour. The performances are very good despite the character limitations, but the script comes across as a drunks, nonsensical idea that would have been better off forgotten.

When Hitler fails to kill himself after his final rejection from art school, he wakes up in the garden of the Big Brother House during its final season. True to life, no one watches the programme anymore and the contestants are just in it for the money. Bafflingly, none of them no who Hitler is, even the educated, middle class housemates. Clearly this is a world where WWII never happened, but I’m not sure what point that’s meant to make. Similarly, the plot follows what I imagine to be standard Big Brother events: evictions, competitions, surprises and character clashes that are largely unfunny and offer no new perspective on the show or reality TV format. Though the story defies the laws of Physics through the use of time travel, this element is wholly neglected.

The cast are very good, or at least at playing their respective stereotypes. Stephen Chance is an expressive, quick-witted Hitler with no idea of how to deal with charming, bouncy Essex lad M-Cat (Kit Loyd) and ageing queen Felix (Neil Summerville). He finds kinship in corporate PR and Tory Lucy (Jenny Johns), a delightfully despicable Katie Hopkins homage. The house is completed with femi-gendered Charlie (Hannah Douglas) who has some cracking exchanges with Lucy, and the bland as plain toast housewife Rachel (Tracey Ann Wood), who Hitler immediately distrusts. The combinations invites inevitable situation comedy but again, it’s not sophisticated enough to count as satire, or have any sort of message at all. A shame, as the actors all seem to have great potential but are stuck playing two dimensions.

The show would suit a much smaller format, like a reoccurring sketch as part of a comedy show limiting each slot to ten minutes. About half an hour in, Big Brother Blitzkrieg already feels too long. There were a few good lines, but in 75 minutes, a few isn’t enough to save this play even with the hardworking cast. Despite the commendation these young practitioners deserve for setting up a company whilst still studying and keeping it going for nearly two years, part of artistic development is knowing when to let an idea go. This is a production that needs to retire in favour of more advanced, relevant work.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.